{PBL} Monster Project

“…zero in on what interests your child and stay there as long as she is interested.”
–Lori Pickert, Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners

I feel I should begin this post with a discussion on how any and all topics are valid project material, but I’m struggling with it because I’m having a hard time understanding the position that there would be invalid topics. If I, an adult, am free to focus on what interests me without external judgment—without anyone telling me, “No, that’s frivolous, that’s a waste of time, go do something I’ve decided is meaningful,” then it seems obvious that my child have the same opportunity to pursue an interest without judgment. (Keep in mind that rarely is project work the sum total of all learning. In our homeschool, it is part of what we do. My son also has required work.) Part of why I homeschool is because I don’t give a fig about state standards. Whoever is writing those standards hasn’t met my kid. So, unlike a teacher in a public school, I am not concerned if topics of study fit into a pre-determined state-mandated box. We have no box.

So when I saw we’d come to an end of Egypt-as-project, and we’d moved forward into other areas of ancient history but nothing there was causing enough momentum to turn into project work, I turned my mind to my son’s interests. What had been occupying his attention lately? Monsters had been dominating his pretend play, and not nebulous in-the-closet monsters, but things like vampires, werewolves, and the like. The types of monsters that have appeared in stories and legends around the world, for years. “Would you like to find out more about these monsters?” I asked. “Would you like to do a project on them?”

A selection of books used so far in the monster project

A selection of books used so far in the monster project

Several months in, my son has a better understanding of what I mean when I say project, versus what his teachers in school meant, so he was excited about the idea. He decided, too, that he’d like to create a field-guide type book with the information he gathered. So far he’s read a huge stack of books, made a list of twenty monsters he wants to include, decided the information he wants to include, if possible, about each one, and completed two entries (Mothman and Vampires) using Microsoft Publisher and my assistance. He is researching, sorting through information, prioritizing and organizing, taking notes, and arranging the information, as well as drawing a picture of each monster to scan into the computer and drop into the page as a jpg file. I am reminding, prodding, helping him set (and stick to) his goals, and assisting him with the computer and with research and note-taking.

Reading is not a struggle for him, but writing sometimes is. I am doing quite a bit of scaffolding. There was so much information on vampires that I wrote down his notes as he dictated them to me. I told him note-taking involved reading information and putting it into his own words so he didn’t forget what he wanted to remember. That’s all it took—he read, formulated his own words, and dictated notes. The physical process of writing is still, at age 8, something that slows him down. I can see that he is processing the information, understanding it, and rephrasing it, and that’s more important to me than whether he is writing it down himself or not. Because he is interested in this topic and completely excited at the look of his finished work as it comes out of the printer, motivation is much higher for him to work through the challenging bits. This is a child who has told me outright, “I didn’t care if I did a good job in school because I didn’t care about what we were doing.” Mind you, this was part of a larger conversation in which I learned that he was feeling overwhelmed at the thought of starting his monster book because it was so important to him. We worked through that enough that he felt able to begin.

“Without [a child’s authentic interest], learning is like pushing a boulder uphill. With it, we’re pushing the boulder downhill.”
–Lori Pickert, Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners

My eight-year-old is interested in monsters. I’m rolling the boulder downhill.

12 thoughts on “{PBL} Monster Project

  1. Lori

    “I feel I should begin this post with a discussion on how any and all topics are valid project material, but I’m struggling with it because I’m having a hard time understanding the position that there would be invalid topics.”

    some project topics that i have seen rejected in the classroom: space/rockets (too far away, can’t visit), ocean (not local so too far away, can’t visit), dinosaurs (can’t do hands-on research), pirates (imaginary, should be “real world”), princesses (see previous), fairy tales (see previous), guns (too violent), and so on. in other words, *most of the things kids are very interested in*.

    parents wrestle with some project topics for the same reasons — and others because they seem “too fun” (as in, the child is just trying to sneakily play instead of really work) or “not educational enough.” a lot of parents have a hard time accepting that children can work very hard on something that they really enjoy — it’s just a mindset that we aren’t used to! learning is supposed to be *work* and work isn’t supposed to be fun.

    since project-based homeschooling has three levels of learning (learning about the topic, acquiring skills to do things the child wants to do, and then acquiring the habits of mind along the way), you really cannot find a topic that doesn’t have huge learning potential. if the child is deeply interested and engaged, they will supply the motivation and the ideas. being *open* to those interests is a major hurdle for the adults working with the children. we don’t *have* to consider whether the topic looks appropriate or serious or educational on the surface, but it’s still a hard thing for a lot of people to let go of that. the best way, in my opinion, to move past it is to go ahead and try it for yourself. let your child follow that authentic interest and see if it does add up to meaningful work and learning. in other words, don’t let your prejudice keep you from finding out the truth.

    amy, love love LOVE this post — what could be more motivating than working on the thing you care most about? so many parents could really connect with their kids and help their kids connect with their true talents and abilities if they could embrace their interests instead of trying to herd their kids toward something “more appropriate.” huge win. 🙂

    1. amy

      I know there are lots of rejected topics–thank you for chiming in, because I do find it hard to wrap my head around telling a kid, “Nope, that’s not worthy of serious attention.”

      1. Lori

        this is a big subject and hard to address briefly, but i know at least part of it comes from fear — not just fear that other people will look at the work and think “is this really worthy of children’s time?” but also fear that those self-chosen topics will actually incorporate real, useful learning. which, of course, is ridiculous. no matter what you deeply investigate and research and master, you will learn. the exotic connects to the everyday; make-believe connects to reality in a thousand ways. and every endeavor requires skills.

  2. Michelle

    Love this, Amy. All of it. Seriously, we do have to step back and ask ourselves how we would want to be treated, and it all makes sense. And yes, we have our own required work, too, but we get to follow our own interests and have our own projects. They should be able to do the same.

    1. amy

      Thanks for your comment! He is still struggling with the nitty-gritty of it, but hopefully the fact that the end result–and the topic–are born of his own true interest, and not assigned by somebody else, will help him get over those rough spots. It seems to be common sense that any person, child or adult, will work harder and with more persistence when he or she is invested in the final result. It makes my head hurt how backwards this is approached in the typical school.

  3. Karen

    I love this, Amy. Your posts leave me wanting so much more for all our children, and increasingly sad about the state of our public education. You are working so hard and making his learning so meaningful.

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